Wednesday, September 17, 2008

NY Philharmonic opens; what about musician hearing loss?


Today PBS broadcast opening night for the New York Philharmonic, with Lorin Maazel conducting the Berlioz “Roman Carnival Overture,” the funny Flute Concerto by Jacques Ibert (with Sir James Galway as the soloist), and Tchkovsky’s Fourth Symphony. The “coiled spring” coda of the first movement seemed a little rushed compared to other performances. Apparently the Philharmonic held a free dress rehearsal this morning. The performance link is here.

There have been disturbing reports that classical orchestra musicians and conductors face hearing loss over a lifetime if they are exposed to the brass and loud instruments of large romantic compositions. An article by Bernard D. Sherman, reprinted from “Early Music America” in 2000, “Losing Your Ears to Music: The hearing loss epidemic and musicians,” link here. The article talks about an incident where Wilhelm Furtwangler had trouble conducting one of his own works (the Second Symphony is quite heroic indeed) because of a lifetime of deafening from brass sections from Wagner, Bruckner and Mahler. Conductors emphasizing smaller works or works played by smaller ensembles may not have such an issue. I wonder about the orchestra players, whose exposure depends on their seating position relative to other sections of the orchestra.

Of course, the problem is well known among rock musicians (and disco dancers) but not so much in classical. There could be karma problems here.

I lost some hearing in my right ear at around 4000 cps on the rifle range in Basic Training in 1969. Coaching created a lot more exposure than firing. Afterward, I could hear your ears rings when I bit down. Yet, the television set in the barracks sent out a 15000 cps scanning tone, and I could hear that in both ears when in my 20s. We also hear that teenagers have cell phone ringtones pitched so high that their teachers can’t hear them.

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